The general conclusion of the recent John Jay College report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, was
No single “cause” of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research. Social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Some claimed that the report was just what the bishops ordered: it was society’s fault and not the Church’s. Others claim the report was covering for the gay priest agenda in blaming society, while others noted that the report dispelled many misconceptions, including the one that homosexual priests were to blame. Still others noted the $1.8 million dollar price tag while others marveled that the price came with such a paltry conclusion as “well, you know, it’s really, really complicated.”
One aspect of the report that seems to be missing from these discussions, however, is that social isolation and a lack of relationships seemed to play a significant role in the abuse. Priests seemed to abuse “at times of increased job stress, social isolation, and decreased contact with peers.” The priests who did abused were those “who lacked close social bonds, and those whose family spoke negatively or not at all about sex” and “had vulnerabilities, intimacy deficits, and an absence of close personal relationships before and during seminary.”
Moreover, the priests who abused were able to take advantage of their victims by creating “opportunities to be alone with minors, for example, during retreats” and by focusing on minors who often lacked a “capable guardian.”
Although isolation is by no means the only factor contributing to the sexual abuse, it is a thread that runs through the document, affecting both perpetrators and victims. This aspect of the abuse is troubling and calls for a greater commitment to Christian discipleship.
It is troubling because social isolation seems to be on the rise in our society. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a study of the precipitous decline of personal relationships, what he calls “social capital”. Not only are divorce rates high (although they have been declining slightly for several years) but fewer people are getting married. Parishes are becoming larger while the number of priests is failing to keep pace, a situation that often leaves priests overworked and on their own. In short, we seem to be in an environment that could easily foster more victims and perpetrators of abuse.
The situation also seems to call for a greater commitment to our Christian conviction to love God and love others. If social isolation is part of the problem and God commands us to love the neighbor, stranger and enemy, it seems most pressing on us to attend to those that are ostracized or isolated. It seems as if it should be one of the main responses to the sexual abuse scandal by the whole of the Church, a response by bishops, priests, and laity.
I realize that this is easy enough to say but extremely hard to do. I most frequently encounter someone who is isolated in the midst of the freshman I teach every semester. Many, if not most, do quite well, both in class and on campus. The ones that do not, the ones that are isolated, they are hard to connect with. They do not respond in class or outside of class, in person or electronically. If they do speak, they often say things that seem insulting or bizarre. They lack friends because they are awkward, and they are awkward, in part, because they lack friends. Yet, this seems precisely the task at hand. These are the people that our love should bring us to reach out to, even if this reaching out is rejected, even if one is unsure of how to reach out.
It seems that the John Jay report implicitly speaks to our most basic task as Christians, to love one another as God has loved us. Like so many things in this world, it points to the wisdom of God that makes our most fundamental duty that which also fosters to healing and peace.